Better governance for colleges

The largest graduating class fills the North Charleston Coliseum during the Trident Technical College's 50th commencement Friday May 2, 2014. (Grace Beahm/File)

Legislators who are pushing to close S.C. State University for at least three semesters are blaming the school’s leadership for failing to come up with solutions for the college’s dire financial situation.

Certainly school leaders are the ones to address the fiscal disaster, which has plagued the school far too long. The increasingly grim bottom line is becoming even worse because enrollment has plummeted, and the school is in danger of losing its accreditation.

But legislators also should accept some responsibility for the critical situation there. Year after year the Legislature has failed to acknowledge that the statewide system for supervising and funding its colleges and universities is inadequate.

Under the present system, the Commission on Higher Education is responsible for overseeing the financial affairs of public colleges in South Carolina, as well as approving new academic programs statewide. But the CHE’s authority is limited, and the result is that the state has too many public colleges, too much program duplication and too much opportunity for legislative meddling.

So far, legislators appear to have no stomach for strengthening the authority of the CHE. But the circumstances involving S.C. State should be a case study for why the state needs greater oversight and accountability. The Legislature should establish a better method of governance: a board of regents responsible for the operation of the state’s institutions of higher education.

It is hard to imagine that S.C. State would be in the hole it’s in now had a strong board of regents been in place.

A board of regents with oversight authority would have been sure to detect that the university’s management had serious shortcomings, and could have acted to forestall additional problems.

Other states have adopted the board of regents form of management to provide for more equitable distribution of state funds for higher education. S.C. State advocates have said for years that it lacked adequate state support.

A board of regents, whose members focus solely on higher education, would be in a far better place to determine the future of S.C. State than the multi-tasking, part-time Legislature.

Of the 50 states, 39 maintain a board of regents to govern or coordinate their public higher education multi-campus systems.

And as colleges across this cash-strapped state continue to look for ways to expand — for example, Francis Marion College is planning to open a campus in Mount Pleasant — it is extremely important to have strong oversight and a sound statewide perspective.

S.C. State serves as the single most compelling reason for providing strong, capable higher ed oversight. But ongoing higher ed duplication and declining state support for public colleges underscore the general need for greater accountability on a regular, routine basis. A board of regents could fit the bill.